Rubbing his eyes and pacing in front of the study fireplace, Cade felt as though every bone in his body ached. He had barely slept in almost a week, not able to find rest anywhere. He tried to lay in his bed first, but it felt wrong to try to sleep without Mae by his side. He retreated to his sofa, where he spent too long sitting in front of his fireplace, drinking wine. Eventually, he dozed off sometimes early in the morning, finding only a few hours of sleep before the sun woke him up.
He did not try the bed again after that night. He slept on his sofa in his room or stayed up late in his study, reading and writing messages until he could no longer keep his eyes open. He would collapse in a chair by the fire, resting until he woke up to start working again. He could not stay still long. If he did not keep busy, his mind would go to Mae and what she must have been enduring. His worry would turn to dread, which would quickly burn whatever hope he had away. He could not give in, not when there was still a chance to save her.
His days were spent meeting with lords on his side in secret and pressuring others he knew were working with the Highest One. He had to find a way to see Mae first and then release her. Thad reminded him over and over they could not save Mae until her family was safe and away from the temple’s reach. Every day, Cade looked for a letter from Mae’s uncle, and when it did not come, he grew more anxious.
He stopped his pacing and leaned on the mantel as he closed his eyes. He knew he needed more rest. He would be no use to Mae if he became sick with exhaustion, but he could not quiet his mind and body knowing where she was. Cade took breaths, thinking of how badly he wished to hold her when he heard a knock at his door before it opened.
Thad came into the room, slowly closing the door behind him. He walked to the fireplace and poured a cup of wine before collapsing in a nearby chair.
“Well, did you see her?” asked Cade. “Did that guard get you in?”
Thad took a long drink as he nodded. “I saw her and spoke with her.”
“How is she?” Thad looked up at Cade before quickly cutting his eyes away. “That bad?” Cade sunk into a chair next to Thad.
“She is alive. That will have to be enough.”
“What has he done to her?”
Thad finished his wine and put his cup down. “You can probably guess it all. He has threatened her, had her beaten, and cut her often to take her blood.”
“He has found a way to use her power himself then?”
“He has, but it is not what he expected. The elixir he is using absorbs whatever power Mae uses in its presence.” Thad took a deep breath before staring at Cade. “It is how he killed your father. Mae attacked the Highest One earlier that day, and his elixir was imprinted with her spell. He harnessed it and killed the king with it.”
“I knew it was him. He was afraid my father would keep Mae from him. The Highest One knew he was going to send Mae away.”
“Mae blames herself. She is very close to giving up,” said Thad.
“How can she think it is her fault?” Cade stood up and started pacing in front of the fireplace again. “That evil man has pushed her and threatened her. Even with all he did, she couldn’t kill him. She would never have hurt my father.”
“I know, Cade. I believe if Mae were thinking clearly, she would not talk so, but she is in a lot of pain. She is also worried for you and her family. You know how far she will go to save all she loves.”
“We might have to act before we hear from Mae’s uncle. It would take the Highest One at least a few days to contact his guards. We will have to trust High Holy One Llewelyn does what I asked.”
“We need to give it a few more days,” said Thad. “Mae will not want her family in any danger. If we could give my contacts a little more time to spread information around that kingdom about how the temple is misusing them, that would be helpful as well.”
“She could be dead in a few days, Thad,” said Cade furiously.
“They will not let her die. They will use her cruelly, but the Highest One needs her.”
“I can not stand to think of her suffering.”
“It would do her good to see you. I cannot put you at risk by sneaking you in to see her, but have you had any success putting pressure on the Highest One?”
“Not yet,” said Cade. “I have spoken to the lords I trust, and they have asked many questions of the council about why Mae is being held. I met Lord Easton and Lord Ferrin, and they were very uncomfortable around me. I could tell they believed the Highest One had something to do with my father’s death.”
“And did you pressure them?” asked Thad. “Let them know you will be reworking your council soon?”
“I did, and Lord Easton’s estate is not doing well in Bevins. I mentioned that it was valuable land and that at least two lower lords close to him had done very well this year. I said they might be ready for more responsibility and a larger estate should some higher lords not prove trustworthy.”
“Good,” said Thad. “You want to scare them enough they go running to the Highest One. He will not want the carefully created web of support he has created to come unraveled.”
“I told them all it is not right to hold a high lady of the kingdom in the cells with no date set for a trial. I also should be involved in the investigation as it was my father in my palace.”
“Then I suspect the Highest One will contact you soon. I know this is hard, Cade. I can’t tell you how difficult it was to leave her there. I was tempted to break her out and take her far away from this city, but she probably wouldn’t go knowing the danger it would put you and your family in.”
“I cannot wait much longer, Thad. It has been over a week. I don’t think we have three like you planned.”
“I will write even more of my contacts tomorrow. I will not let her die in those cells.”
Cade nodded as he believed Thad, but he knew there were things as bad as death or even worse. If they didn’t save Mae soon, he worried she would be beyond their help even if she were still breathing.
The next day and a half were as awful as the ones before it. Cade existed on little rest or food, trying to sleep and eat just enough to keep his strength up. Thad stayed in the palace. He accompanied Cade to meet with a few lords, talking passionately with those they trusted and coming close to threatening those they didn’t. He stayed up late at night with Cade. They did not speak much as there wasn’t anything else to be said, but Cade appreciated his companionship and support.
The afternoon of the second day after Thad had visited Mae, Mrs. Wynn came into the study. Thad and Cade both stood as she curtsied.
“Your majesty, you have a visitor, but I wasn’t sure you wished to see him. He is waiting in the entry hall with several of the royal guards. He has brought a few of his own.”
“I take it the Highest One is here to see me?” asked Cade. Mrs. Wynn nodded. He looked at Thad.
“Tell him he to come here, and the king will give him ten minutes. He is to leave his guards in the entry hall and be escorted here by three of the royal guards.”
“Is that what you wish, your majesty?” asked Mrs. Wynn.
Cade stared at Thad for a moment, afraid the Highest One would be angry at such commands and leave, taking Cade’s chance of seeing Mae soon with him.
“Trust me,” said Thad quietly.
“Yes, Mrs. Wynn, tell him exactly what Lord Aimon said.”
“As you command, your majesty,” said Mrs. Wynn with a curtsy before she left.
Cade moved to his desk and stood behind it as Thad came to his side. “You are sure this is wise, Thad? What if he becomes so angry he leaves?”
“He will be angry, but he will not leave. If he has come to the palace, he must be worried about what his lords and council are saying. He will not leave without finding a way to lessen your influence over his allies.”
There was a knock at the door, and Cade looked at Thad, who nodded.
“Enter,” said Cade loudly, and the door opened.
The Highest One walked in, flanked by the three royal guards. He bowed as he stood before Cade’s desk. “Your Majesty, I hardly think such an escort was necessary. I come in the interest of the council and the kingdom.”
“We shall see,” said Cade. “Since you have wrongly imprisoned my future wife, I do not have faith in your intentions for anything. My guards will stay in the room, and if you do anything threatening towards Lord Aimon or me, they will act.”
“My intentions are always to serve the goddess and the kingdom, you too, of course. Lady Maela is imprisoned to protect the kingdom and especially you. We are studying her power to see if she intentionally killed our king or if it were an unfortunate release of unintended magic.”
“You choose to keep up this false narrative even when there is no audience, Highest One?” asked Thad.
“There is no falsehood, my lord. The king was killed using the power from the goddess, and one who knows Lady Maela’s power well says it was hers.”
“It may have been some strange reflection of hers, but I believe it was wielded by another, someone who had reason to kill the late king because his ideas and actions were getting in the way of their plans,” said Thad.
“I did not come here to argue with you, Lord Aimon. I came to speak with the king. I understand I am under a time constraint.”
“Then say what you will, Highest One,” said Cade.
“I think there is too much misinformation going around the city, your majesty. Lady Maela is being held as a precaution until we can find out the truth. For some reason, people doubt the council’s actions, thinking we are keeping her in a cell for other purposes.”
“They think it because it is true,” said Cade. “Lady Maela has done nothing wrong. I know it, and you do as well.”
“You can not tell me what I know, your majesty,” said the Highest One calmly. “I gain my information from my observances and guidance from the goddess.”
Cade sighed. “You are running out of time, Highest One. Did you come here just to spout this nonsense, or did you want something?”
“I understand from talking with some of the lords in the city that you are anxious for Lady Maela. I came to assure you she is alive and well in the cells. She is brought to me often to speak and have chances to serve the council and kingdom.”
“And what do you define as well?” asked Cade. “I have heard rumors that Lady Maela is anything but well.”
“She sometimes does not do as she is asked, and there are consequences,” said the Highest One carefully. “She has not been harmed permanently.”
Thad gave a short laugh. “He lies so easily,” he said quietly so only Cade could hear him.
“If you came just to give me your reassurances about Lady Maela, you could have saved yourself the trouble of the walk here. There is nothing you could say that would make me believe you. For all I know, you could have already killed her.”
“You wish to see her?” asked the Highest One.
“As I have requested to see her almost every day since she was taken, you know I do.”
“Then come tonight after supper to the back of the temple. I will have my head guard take you to her,” said the Highest One. He grinned slightly. “Once you are assured of her condition, perhaps you will think more carefully about how you speak of the council and me throughout the city.”
“That sounds like a threat,” said Thad in a low, angry voice that was almost a hiss.
“It is not a threat at all,” said the Highest one. “Just a bit of advice.”
Cade narrowed his eyes. “Your time is up, Highest One. Guards, please escort him back to the entry hall and see that he leaves directly.”
“I will give you no more than thirty minutes with our prisoner tonight, your majesty. You will be watched at all times by my head guard. You have your stipulations in your palace, and I have mine in my temple.”
“The temple belongs to the goddess,” said Cade. “You seem to have forgotten who you serve.”
“I am entrusted with the leadership of the temple. I know very well who I serve, and everything I have done has been with it in mind.”
“Go now, Highest One. Do not visit here again unless you are summoned,” said Cade.
“Visit directly after supper. You will have thirty minutes, and if you do not listen, there will be consequences.”
“You dare continue to threaten my king?” asked Lord Aimon.
“I will not touch the king. The consequences will come another way to one within my power,” said the Highest One with a smile.
“Get out,” said Cade.
The rest of the night and evening felt like it moved in slow motion. Cade changed into some simple clothes before eating a quick supper with Thad. They walked towards the temple with six royal guards leading the way.
“Cade,” said Thad quietly as they walked side by side. “You need to be prepared for what you will find. She is not well. She might tell you things you don’t want to hear.”
“I have to see her, Thad. Whatever she has to say, I will remind her over and over of my love and need for her. I have to find a way to help her hold on for just a few days more.”
They came to the side back door of the temple where three temple guards stood, one ahead of the others.
“Your majesty,” said the guard. “I am Carston, the head of the temple guards. I will see you to the cells. Your guards must wait here.”
“Our king goes nowhere without protection,” said the head of the royal guard.
“Then he will not go into my cells,” said Carston.
“It is fine, Kellen,” said Cade. “I will leave my guard here, but Lord Aimon will come with me.”
Carston nodded as Cade looked at his head guard. “Stay here by the door and keep watch. We will be back in half an hour.”
Kellen did not look happy, but he stepped back and stood straight as Cade and Thad walked through the door Carston opened. He took them down a long hallway to a door he unlocked. From there, they went down a long staircase. Cade could feel the air become colder and damp the further down they went.
Once they finally reached the bottom, they were shown to an old stone door that Carston unlocked before opening slowly. Two guards stood behind the door. They parted as Carston moved forward, with Cade and Thad following. It was a long room full of cells behind iron bars. Only two torches burned, making the area dim and the cells almost completely dark.
They walked almost to the end, coming to the next to last cell. “This is it,” said Carston. He hit the bars. “You have visitors, my lady.”
Cade walked up to the bars and peered into the cell. It was so dark inside he could not find Mae. Carston hit the bars again, but there was no response.
“Mae,” said Cade into the darkness. He watched closely for any movement and listened for the slightest sound. He said her name again, and still, there was nothing. Cade looked at Carston. “Open this cell, now.”
“That was not a part of my orders from the Highest One,” said Carston.
“I don’t care what your orders are,” said Cade. “Something is wrong. Open this cell, now.”
Carston gave an insolent grin as he stepped towards Cade. Before he could speak, Thad moved in front of Cade, raising his arm. A small dagger came flying out of his sleeve, which he caught. His knife stopped just short of Carston’s neck. “Open this cell as the king has commanded.”
“You wouldn’t dare,” said Carston.
“I would, and I have done it before,” said Thad with coldness. “Open this cell, or you will find how serious I am.”
Carston slowly reached for the keys hanging on his belt. He grabbed them and put one into the l lock as Thad put his knife down. The cell door was opened, and Cade pushed Carston aside to enter. He looked around, moving slowly into the space. Spotting her outline lying on her side with her back to him, he hurried over and kneeled beside her.
“Mae,” he said quietly as he gently put his hand on her arm. He took a deep breath before turning her towards him. He felt relief flood him as her eyes blinked open.
“You are not here,” she said hoarsely. “This is another cruel dream.”
“I am here,” said Cade reassuringly. He carefully moved her hair away from her face. He could barely see her in the dimness of the cell, but he could feel her flinch as if in pain as his fingers grazed her cheek.
She suddenly sat up further and tried to move away from him. “You shouldn’t be here. You must leave.”
“I had to come to see you, Mae. I said I would never leave you, and I meant it.”
“You have endured and lost so much because of me. You were right to want to send me away. I am so sorry, Cade. You must leave me here and forget me.”
“None of that is true; I cannot let you go.”
“You must. It is for the best,” said Mae weakly.
“It is not. I don’t think I ever really lived until I met you. My heart never truly beat before that day I first saw you. I tried to keep it hidden behind a wall I had built, but you broke through little by little. I cannot build it up again, and I don’t want to do it.”
“Your father, Cade. It was because of me.”
“It was not,” said Cade. “I know who killed my father, and one day, he will pay. Vengeance will have to wait because first I must save you.”
“I don’t think you can,” she said as he pulled her closer, feeling her shiver against him. Her voice lowered to a whisper. “There is nothing but pain and darkness.”
He pulled her completely in his lap before taking his cloak off. He wrapped it around her and held her against him. Closer to him, he could see the bruises on her face. He picked up one of her arms to find fresh cuts and others that looked only half-healed. One or two were angry and red. “There is something beyond this. You will find it again, and I will help you. You cannot give up.”
She laid her head against his chest. “I don’t know what I can do. I cannot give them what they want, but I am afraid they will hurt you or my family.”
Cade glanced outside the cell to see Thad at the door, blocking Carston. Cade kept his voice quiet. “We have done everything to get your family to safety. I am expecting a letter any day from your uncle. Once I receive it, I will come and release you from this. We will run far away from the city, where no one can hurt you.”
“You cannot do it,” said Mae. “It is too risky, and you cannot leave the palace. Gelardia needs you.”
“I can rule from many places, and things will change soon in the kingdom as they have needed to for a while. The people will soon begin rising up against what is truly keeping them in poverty and disease. They will know it is the temple that has turned against the ways of the goddess, wanting only power and caring not for the needs of her people.”
“Uprisings will cause more pain and death,” whispered Mae.
“Perhaps, but if the result is a kingdom that is better for everyone, then we have to believe it is worth it. The people cannot be held back forever, and change must happen. I wish the High Council were full of good men who would see it, but they are too blinded by their power, especially the Highest One.”
“Then perhaps you should leave tomorrow and see to your people. You can leave me here to my fate. I am one person amongst many.”
“I cannot leave you here, and you know it. I cannot do without you, Mae, and this kingdom needs a queen. I will have none other than you. We also cannot let the Highest One have any more access to your power.”
“Then perhaps you should find a way to end me. I feel like I am nothing but a weapon to be fought over. If I am gone, the Highest One will have no chance to use my power, and your task to overturn the council and temple will be easier.”
“You are more than your power, Mae, and even if you were gone, the Highest One would use other means to get what he wants. He would probably search through the lands looking for those with power, trying to find someone else to use. Perhaps he would collect many, trying to find one to do his bidding.”
She looked at Cade with tears in her eyes. “I am so tired, Cade. I don’t think I can do it anymore.”
He pulled her back to him, holding her against him. How could he leave her there as she was? He should grab her and run, hoping Thad could help him dispose of the guards. They could somehow get out of the city and make their way towards Adaria. If they could get horses, perhaps they could beat the men the Highest One would send.”
Mae coughed and cried out as she grabbed her side. She was in no condition to run that night. He checked her over, pulling up her sleeves further and her skirt, finding so many bruises and cuts, he wondered how she was conscious.
“You will need to leave soon,” came Carston’s harsh voice. “Your time is almost up.”
Cade kissed Mae’s forehead. “I don’t think I can leave you.”
“You must. You have to stay safe. The kingdom needs you.”
She looked up at him, and Cade leaned forward, gently kissing her lips. “It needs you as well. I need you. You promised me you would never leave me. You have to keep that promise.”
She reached up and touched his cheek. “I never want to leave you, but it might be for the best.”
He turned his head and kissed her dirty hand. “You do not mean what you are saying. You know better. You always have. You knew I needed you before I did. You wouldn’t give up on us when I was being stubborn. Now it is my turn to fight for you.”
“I love you,” she said as she kissed him. She repeated her words between kisses, and Cade grew desperate to find some way to keep her with him.
“Your time is up,” said Carston. “The Highest One will be waiting outside the door, and he will not like it if you are late.”
“Come on, your majesty, we have to go,” said Thad.
Mae moved out of his lap and looked up at Thad. “You will keep him safe as you promised?”
“I will, my lady,” said Thad. “As long as you do your part.”
Cade took her hand and whispered. “Just a few more days. I will see you free soon. Do not give up.”
“Do what you must for the kingdom. I will never blame you if this is all I ever see again,” said Mae.
“I will find a way to save you. I will never leave you, trust me.”
She nodded before he kissed her. Before long, Carston again said it was time. “I love you, Mae,” said Cade. “Remember it.”
She let go of his hands and moved back into the shadows. He barely heard her respond, “I will.”
He slowly got up off the ground, keeping his eyes on what little of her he could see. It seemed an impossible task to walk away from her, but somehow his legs moved him back towards the door. When he got close, Thad put his hand on Cade’s arm and pulled him through.
“I know it seems impossible to leave, but it is the best thing you can do for her. We will come back soon with a plan.”
Cade nodded as Carston slammed the door on the cell shut. Cade looked into the cell until Carston pushed him along. He finally started walking to the end of the room, with Thad keeping close to him. When they got to the door, one of the guards there opened it, and Cade found himself face to face with the Highest One.
“Are you satisfied, your majesty?”
“Satisfied? You have beaten and cut her to the point that I am surprised she can talk, let alone be alive. I should call my forces together and storm the temple, or I should kill you here myself.”
The Highest One laughed. “As if you have ever sullied your hands with any kind of work, let alone ever lifted a sword to anyone with the idea of really doing any damage.”
“I am capable of more than you know,” said Cade as he did not back down. “I would not lose a moment of sleep if I ran you threw with my sword. I think I would rest better.”
The Highest One smirked. “As you say, your majesty, but you have seen Lady Maela now. No matter what you say you may do, I know what I can do with her under my watch. I would be careful who you talk to and what the subjects of your conversation are.”
Before Cade could respond, Thad moved him over, facing the Highest One. “I do not doubt my king could do anything for his kingdom or those he loves, but you should know I have done many things already for the Callagans and Gelardia. I have looked into the eyes of men as the life drained out of them. Some of them bothered me, I will not lie, but most I knew were leaving the kingdom a better place.
“Killing you would bring me nothing but satisfaction because you are evil itself. No one could claim he is of the goddess and do what you have done to Lady Maela. She is truly a piece of Aurulia in this kingdom. You will pay for what you have done to her, and I hope I am around to see it.”
“It is time for you and your king to leave, Lord Aimon,” said the Highest One.
“Indeed it is,” said Thad. He looked at Cade, and together, they walked towards the stairs.
When they finally exited the temple, the royal guards surrounding them, Thad looked at Cade. “I know how hard that was for you. It was difficult for me as well. We cannot wait much longer.”
“No, we cannot. I do not wish to put Mae’s family in danger, but I cannot believe they would want this to happen to her.”
As they came to the palace, Cade noticed a horse being tended to by one of the servants. He looked at Thad, and they hurried inside, finding a young man looking dirty and tired. He held a message as he walked up to Cade.
“I came as quickly as I could, your majesty. I barely stopped.” The young man handed Cade the message.
Cade opened it and read over it.
You have my condolences for your father. He was a good man. I am sorry I am not there to attend you, but I have spent my time as I thought best. The people have spoken, and they know who to blame for their troubles. The temple guards have been taken down, and I am traveling with my family as I speak. We will go to Mae’s father’s favorite hideaway. She will know what I mean. See to her release immediately as word will travel fast. Saving her cannot be an option, your majesty. It is a necessity. Have her write me as soon as she is safe and able. Her mother is sick with worry.
Your humble servant
“That is what we were waiting for,” said Thad as he looked over Cade’s shoulder.
“We plan tonight and tomorrow because tomorrow night we see to Mae’s release,” said Cade as he walked towards his study.